The stage was dark. The curtain, drawn. And the crowd, ready to rock. A hundred lucky fans perched on the edge of their seats waiting for the invitation-only show to begin. Suddenly, the drapes parted as the joyful opening riff of ”I Want to Hold Your Hand” filled the room. The spotlight shone on a drum kit bearing the iconic black-and-white logo of the Beatles.
But the performers twisting and shouting on stage were not four young men from Liverpool. Nor were they members of any of the many Beatles tribute bands. The group performing at the Los Angeles Convention Center this past June consisted of six scruffy young geeks. A long-haired coder belted out the verse. A tattooed woman and a cheery guy added the harmonies. A stocky Asian-American played what appeared to be a tinier version of Paul McCartney’s familiar Hofner bass. Another guy held a likeness of George Harrison’s Gretsch guitar. And a really enthusiastic player smacked the drums.
All were employees of Harmonix Music Systems, a video-game company in Cambridge, Mass., and they weren’t actually playing the song; they were demonstrating the most hotly anticipated new game of the year, The Beatles: Rock Band, which hits stores worldwide this month.
The title, to be available for the Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii, allows gamers to perform along with the Fab Four by singing and playing instruments that work as video-game controllers. The goal is to stay in sync with the music. As a song plays, color-coded dots, representing the musical notes, cascade down the TV screen. The guitarist and bassist must press the corresponding colored buttons on their instruments, and the drummer has to hit the right drum pads. Vocalists must sing on pitch as the lyrics scroll across the top of the screen.
The game, created by Harmonix and published by MTV Games, features 45 career-spanning songs and pixelated Beatles characters performing at locations like the Cavern Club in Liverpool and Shea Stadium in New York City. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison, helped Harmonix pick the songs and tweak the graphics.
But the game also stands out for all the music technology behind it. To create the separate instrument and vocal tracks the game needs, Harmonix engineers had to use special audio filters to extract every note from the master tapes. They also developed a pitch-evaluating system that can monitor three players singing harmonies—sun, sun, sun, here it comes—a key part of the Beatles’ music.
Last year, word of the game’s impending release generated Beatlemania-like buzz. This is the Beatles’ first step into the digital entertainment domain. Apple Corps (not to be confused with the Apple of Macintosh and iPod fame), which manages the rights to the band’s original recordings, has long been reluctant about selling songs through online stores. Now the video-game deal might convince Apple Corps that it needs to explore other distribution channels to keep the band relevant.